The secret to staying calm through long waiting periods

Time spent waiting before an important call or discussion can be especially nerve-wracking. Our minds often race with scenarios and possibilities, and many people slowly become just a little bit more agitated the longer they’re kept waiting. A joint international study performed by researchers in Canada and Israel explored the different ways people can approach waiting, and settled upon the best strategy to keeping one’s cool while stuck in a holding pattern.

Avoid constructing wild, and personal, reasons for why you’re being kept waiting. The next time a colleague is late for a meeting, don’t assume they’re late because they don’t respect you. Instead, turn to a more realistic, concrete explanation. Perhaps they’re feeling sick that day or their car broke down. Not only are these real-world explanations much more plausible, but they’ll also help you stay calm and avoid feeling needlessly insulted.

It’s natural to feel a bit peeved when someone else appears to not care about your time. Time is money, after all. Nine times out of ten, however, these waiting periods really have nothing to do with you; they’re caused by annoyances like unexpected calls, traffic jams, or scheduling mistakes. 

The research was performed by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, as well as the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“We spend a part of our daily life waiting, and unfortunately, wait time can fuel aggressive tendencies,” explains Dr. Dorit Efrat-Treister, from the BGU Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, in a press release. “Our study examines the relationship between wait time, perceived wait time, and aggressive tendencies from a construal level perspective.”

Construal level is a term that refers to how a person sees, understands, and interacts with the world around them. Generally, one’s construal level can be separated into two distinct approaches: concrete or abstract. 

Now, abstract thinking can be beneficial in a variety of ways. Abstract thought facilitates creativity and allows us to tap into our artistic sides. Besides that, abstract thought is what enables us to create a vision for our future and goals. Within the context of stressful situations like waiting, though, abstract thought can be a detriment.

“For example, if you are waiting for someone who is late to meet you, you are better off thinking in concrete terms, like assuming they got stuck in a traffic jam compared with abstract terms, like assuming they are disrespecting you,” Efrat-Treister says. “When someone is late for a call, if you think abstractly, you may think they don’t respect your time, or they don’t think the call is important, and therefore you might become mad. But if you think they may have just misplaced your number or got another call first, you won’t become so annoyed.”

To come to their conclusions, the research team gathered a group of participants and told each person they would be meeting with someone else in a lab. Once the participant arrived, they were told their partner was running late. Some participants only waited for their partner for around 30 seconds, while others had to wait for five or even 10 minutes.

Before this exercise, half the study subjects were told to think abstractly during the waiting period, while the other group was instructed to think in more concrete terms. Sure enough, the participants thinking abstractly reacted more aggressively to being kept waiting and even perceived the time period as longer than it was in reality.

“We showed that the level of abstractness influences how long or short one perceives actual wait time. Therefore, we can influence the perception of the wait time and thus manage aggression,” Efrat-Treister notes.

Interestingly, younger study participants (millennials, generation z) seemed to have an especially tough time waiting without their trusted smartphone by their side. Many of these younger subjects in the abstract group started fidgeting, banging on tables, and showing signs of aggression while waiting.

It’s not something we all think about very often, but every person spends an astounding amount of their life waiting. Lines at the store, being placed on hold while on the phone, and the infamous waiting rooms at doctors’ offices are just a few obvious examples. Moreover, waiting is an inescapable part of professional life. How many of us have been called in for a meeting with a boss or manager, only to be told, “just five minutes, I’m wrapping up a call.”

It’s easy to become agitated in these situations. The next time you find yourself waiting, remember to approach the situation from a realistic perspective and do your best to avoid taking it personally. 

Professionally speaking, there’s no way any manager or organization is going to be able to eliminate all waiting periods for employees and customers. That being said, there are avenues worth exploring that may help those time periods become a little more bearable. 

“For example, medical offices might want to install video monitors with concrete information that distracts from long wait times,” Efrat-Treister says. “The leader of a meeting can focus on getting started and on the agenda rather than focusing on why a partner is late. Any concrete focus that prevents abstract thinking about waiting can be helpful.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.